An all-Island board of health meeting was held on Friday to decide on whether to lift the COVID-19 indoor mask mandates on Martha’s Vineyard. In a unanimous decision, the boards approved keeping the mask mandates in place until January, and reassessing at that time.
Gerald Green, an Aquinnah board of health member, said Aquinnah already decided to keep the town’s mask mandates in place. Chilmark board of health member Matt Poole said his town also decided to keep its mask mandate. Neither town’s board had a quorum for this meeting.
Two guest speakers were present for the meeting: Dr. Michael Stoto, an epidemiologist and professor at Georgetown University, and Dr. Henry Neider, who practices family medicine in Oak Bluffs. Edgartown board of health chair Meegan M. Lancaster said both doctors have been working closely with the Island.
Stoto listed three main reasons to consider dropping the mask mandates on Martha’s Vineyard: the current lower transmission rate, reduced number of large crowds and unvaccinated foreign workers from the summer, and the high number of the vaccinated and increasing number of people eligible for vaccines and booster shots.
For each reason, Stoto brought up a counterpoint. Transmission rates are as low as they are because of the mask mandates. Additionally, while the large summer crowds are gone and foreign summer workers went home, many more people will be coming to the Island during the upcoming holidays. Finally, vaccination is not universal yet. He said this is especially so among children, who are just beginning to get vaccinated starting next week.
“When you take that into account, and if the goals are to balance getting back to normal with safety and also concurring vaccination, I think the proposal would be to keep the mandates in place now, with exceptions for places that have vaccine mandates,” Stoto said. “And then reconsider in January, about the time when the schools are reconsidering their masking policy.”
Stoto said “some triggers” should be put in place now so there is an idea of when it would be the right time to reconsider masking requirements.
Neider was in agreement with Stoto’s assessment. He added that the U.S. and other countries have patterns when an illness had very few cases and then surged.
“Some people think this is inevitable,” Neider said. “I would like to say maybe it’s not. Maybe by keeping our cases really low, by increasing our vaccination rate at the same time by vaccinating kids, and by using masks, maybe come January we will see eight or 10 or 12 weeks of low caseloads, and I think that will give us the evidence we might want to reduce our mask mandates.”
The boards also took public comments before taking their vote.
A couple of the participants expressed frustrations over the mask mandates. Bill Roman, club manager at the Edgartown Yacht Club, said many other businesses do not adhere to the mask mandates when his club does. Meanwhile, another participant said he found the mask mandates to be “rather big brother.”
Most of the commenters were in favor of keeping the mask mandates in place. Many expressed concern for those not yet vaccinated, or for the children.
“There are thousands of kids on this Island between the ages of 5 and 11 who are now eligible, and it will take weeks just to get through them all, and there are three weeks in between doses,” Oak Bluffs library director Allyson Malik, who has a 5-year-old child eligible for the vaccine, said. “I mean, we’re up into the holidays before most of these kids can get fully vaccinated, if they even sign up on time … masks are a big part of moving forward.”
Lyndsay Famariss of the Edgartown Council on Aging said masks have been a great help for elderly community members to continue participating in their programs.
Ebba Hierta, director of the Chilmark library, pointed out that Nantucket dropped its mask mandates a couple of weeks ago, and is seeing an increase in COVID cases, according to a report in the Inquirer & Mirror.
Nieder acknowledged that masks are an uncomfortable piece of clothing to wear, but that is also why it is important to keep the mandates for now. Otherwise, many people will stop wearing them, and progress against COVID will be hindered.
Stoto reminded the meeting that masks are in place more to protect the community, rather than the wearer. Stoto said, according to the Centers for Disease Control, a community of 20,000 is at moderate COVID risk if there are 10 cases per week. The Island would have to see 10 cases per week or fewer for more than a couple of weeks to be sure the situation is stable enough to drop the mask requirements.
“We don’t want to jump the gun,” Oak Bluffs board of health member Tom Zinno said, also pointing to how more people will be staying indoors during the colder months. “Hopefully we can get rid of this mask mandate in the near future.”
While cases have been relatively low, Tisbury health agent Maura Valley showed a line graph that indicated a few variations where cases went beyond the 10-case threshold this fall.
The mask mandates will be kept in place, and the number of cases per week will be tracked into January. The next meeting on masks is scheduled for Jan. 13.